Hockey isn’t the same sport it was 40 years ago. You could certainly say the same for the other three major professional sports in North America, but here’s some perspective: It wasn’t until the 1979-80 season that the NHL mandated the use of helmets for all incoming players, and thanks to a grandfather clause, there was still one person playing without headgear as recently as 1997.
Everyone’s hair flows freely in Old Time Hockey, an upcoming arcade sports title that is more nostalgia-focused than any modern 16-bit side-scroller. Vancouver-based developer V7 Entertainment’s motto might as well be “they don’t make ’em like they used to” — both for the kind of video game that Old Time Hockey is, and for the take on hockey that it’s aiming to deliver.
To hear V7 tell it, Old Time Hockey is meant to evoke a personal connection to the past, whether from playing classic arcade sports games or from following hockey in its violent bygone days.
“We wanted to try to capture that experience of, you know, playing on the couch, having a few drinks with your buddies, that whole old-school nostalgic experience,” said executive producer Mike Torillo in an interview with Polygon last week.
Torillo name-dropped sports touchstones like NBA Jam, Tecmo Bowl and Blades of Steel, explaining that V7 is designing Old Time Hockey to be the kind of simple sports game that anyone can pick up and enjoy — even with one hand. (More on that later.) But there’s a deeper level of nostalgia at play, too.
“We wanted to also have a good emphasis on all the stuff that you usually don’t get to see, you know — the dirtier side of hockey, let’s say,” Torillo continued. “We do appreciate how it used to be. You hear these stories of back then, with Gordie Howe, how tough he was; all these ridiculous situations.”
Here’s a sampling of the ridiculous situations on display in Old Time Hockey: nobody wears a helmet; fights break out frequently, and players hack at each other with their hockey sticks; athletes leave these brawls with blood streaming down their faces; it’s possible to injure enough opposing players to force a team to forfeit. This is exactly the kind of stuff you don’t see in the only other hockey video game that’s currently available: EA Sports’ long-running NHL series.
EA’s game is a simulation experience — not just of hockey, but specifically of National Hockey League hockey — and none of the aforementioned brutality is represented in the present-day NHL. Even if it were, the restrictions of a league license would likely force the developers to keep that stuff out of the game. (Over the past decade, all of EA’s simulation hockey games have been rated E10+ for “Mild Violence,” a content descriptor that exists solely for the bloodless fistfights that can occur.)
“We're big fans of [EA Sports] NHL, don’t get me wrong,” said Torillo. “But we understand that, yeah, [EA’s] NHL [franchise] has to have a — like I’ll say — a squeaky-clean, good representation of the sport.
“So we wanted to almost do everything you can’t do in an NHL game.”
While you’ll see plenty of extracurricular activity on the ice in Old Time Hockey, the game is an arcade experience more along the lines of Midway’s early-2000s NHL Hitz series than, say, Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey ’98. In other words, the game plays fast and loose with the physics of hockey, but it offers five-on-five action and there aren’t any power-ups — although it’s possible to catch on fire à la NBA Jam, and set the net ablaze with a goal.
The accessibility of Old Time Hockey extends to how you play it, too. The game offers a modern control scheme that uses many of the inputs on a gamepad, as well as a simplified two-button setup that EA Sports’ games refer to as “NHL ’94 controls.” There’s one more option that V7 informally calls “Beer Mode,” which allows for one-handed play — the left or right analog stick, plus the corresponding bumper and trigger for shooting, passing and checking — so you can drink the beverage of your choice while you play.
Even the fighting is grounded, at least in Old Time Hockey’s story mode, which is designed to be an introductory experience both for the way the game is played and for the history of hockey. The campaign casts you as a player in the Bush Hockey League (BHL), on the last-place Charleston Blues — a team whose name and logo are obvious references to the beloved 1977 sports film Slap Shot, in which Paul Newman led a Rust Belt minor league club called the Charlestown Chiefs.
“We took inspiration from classics like [Slap Shot],” said Torillo, adding that “big hockey fans” will find similar homages and parodies throughout Old Time Hockey. The game’s cel-shaded look also lends a vintage feel to the proceedings.
The mode drops you into the middle of the Blues’ losing campaign, setting you up to play the last 40 games of the season against the nine other fictional squads in the league. Each matchup will ask you to do things like shut out your opponent or pull off a Gordie Howe hat trick (scoring a goal, notching an assist and getting into a fight). As you complete those goals, you’ll improve your team’s ratings and unlock skills such as being able to catch fire.
V7 is promising a charming story mode with the fun antics of a lovable group of guys in the mid-’70s. “There are other hilarious hijinks along the way that you’d only hear if you were part of a hockey team, albeit one that rides the bus — one of those blue-collar hockey players,” said Torillo. But if you want to play a season mode without the story trappings, that will be available, too.
A campaign mode is something rare in sports video gaming, and it’s an impressive inclusion for a game made by a team this small — Torillo said that V7, which has been developing Old Time Hockey on and off throughout its four-year existence, got as big as 25 employees but currently has about 10 people on staff. Yet an indie studio of that size inevitably has to make compromises somewhere, and one that could prove painful for people interested in Old Time Hockey is online play.
“Unfortunately, at this time, it was just outside of our resources,” Torillo said. “It would have been easy to do online, but it wouldn’t have been easy to do solid online. We didn’t want to be one of those stories you hear, where once the online feature comes on, it’s like, ‘Oh, this is unplayable!’”
Instead, V7 put its effort into delivering local couch play. Old Time Hockey will support up to four players in any combination for exhibition matches, and as many as four players cooperatively in story/season mode games. Torillo said that in early playtesting, V7 discovered that people responded positively to the arcade aspects of the game, which led the studio to focus on that old-school feel.
These days, sports fans have to look to indie games for their arcade fix — all of the giants of the genre, including EA Sports, 2K Sports and first-party publishers, are making simulation titles on consoles. If they’re developing arcade-style experiences at all, it’s usually for mobile devices.
“We recognized that there’s holes in the market, so to speak — there’s gaps for these niches to fit into, and we feel that it’s an underserved genre,” said Torillo, responding to a list of arcade sports games from the days of yore. “We were fans of those games [...] and they don’t make ’em anymore.”
Old Time Hockey is in development on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One. V7 Entertainment will release the game March 28 on PS4 and PC for $14.99.
Update (March 21): We’ve edited the article to replace the trailer, and to add details about the release date and price.